Had the Marquette Hilltoppers started the second half of Friday's playoff game with the Franklin Sabers like they did the first half, there's a real chance it would have been their dream of reaching Camp Randall that was still alive and not Franklin's.
Senior defensive back Jared Karow made sure that wasn't the case.
Karow stepped in front of Marquette quarterback Charlie Greif's pass at the Hilltoppers' 15-yard line and returned it for a touchdown minutes into the second half to give the Sabers an 8-point lead en route to a 41-13 blowout in a WIAA Division 1, Level 3 contest at Franklin.
"The ball was there and I just made a jump on it," said Karow, who collected two of the Sabers' five interceptions on the night. "Coach (Louis) Brown has been working on that all week, and there's nothing you can do but make that play after making it so many times in practice."
With the win, Franklin (11-1) heads to the state semifinals for the fourth time in six years but first time since 2010.
"I've been a part of all four, and they are all special groups," said Brown, whose team rides a 10-game winning streak into a Level 4 showdown with Mukwonago. "They've all been special groups of seniors. Kudos to the seniors. We've never had more than 20; this year we have 28. Most of them are key contributors, and they made their own history. I'm proud of them."
Karow's game-changing play came with the Sabers nursing a 14-13 lead early in the second. Franklin had just pinned the Hilltoppers (9-3) deep in their own territory on quarterback Sean McGuire's perfectly placed punt.
On the second play of the Hilltoppers' ensuing possession – right after a near-safety – Karow put the blowout in motion with his pick-six.
"It was something we'd seen on film, something we thought we could jump," Brown said. "To me, Jared Karow is one of the best defensive backs in the state. He jumped it and made a play. That was huge for us."
The momentum-shifting play marked a polar opposite from the Hilltoppers' start to the game, when they quickly marched 80 yards in 11 plays over just 2 minutes and 21 seconds to take an early lead.
Marquette, however, was never able to recover from Karow's pick, in part because Greif, their star quarterback who came into the game with 27 touchdown passes and more than 2,600 yards, was injured on the first play of the next series.
He did not return, forcing one of Marquette's top targets in the passing game, Jake Matkovitch, to take over the signal-calling duties. That proved to be a difficult task, as the junior threw three interceptions, including another to Karow and one that Erik Wimmer returned for a touchdown late in the fourth.
Franklin's defense stole the spotlight, but the offense came up big in the second half as well, especially after Matkovich's first series under center ended with a Karow interception with 7 minutes, 6 seconds left in the third. Franklin rattled off 15 plays, charged 78 yards and scored on Chad Walton's 2-yard run on fourth-and-goal with 11:54 left in the game.
"I was trying to make a statement," Brown said, explaining his decision to go for it instead of attempting a field goal. "They're a big physical team, and I think so are we. Our O-line is pretty good, pretty big and pretty strong. I thought if we scored there, that would be huge."
Walton finished with four scores and 91 yards on 21 carries for the Sabers, who extended their winning streak over the Hilltoppers to three games dating back to 2010.
McGuire, Franklin's quarterback, passed for 293 yards on 23 of 34 passing – including a whopping 25 attempts in the first half alone – to move past 2,500 passing yards this season.
"We said all year this was our goal, to reach state and we're one win away," McGuire said. "It's kind of surreal in a way that we're so close. It's crazy to think about, and I wouldn't want to do it with anybody else than the brothers I have on this field."
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